Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women

Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women

Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women

Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women


Jonathan Swift was the subject of gossip and criticism in his own time concerning his relations with women and his representations of them in his writings. For over twenty years he regarded Esther Johnson, "Stella," as "his most valuable friend," yet he is reputed never to have seen her alone. From his time to our own there has been speculation that the two were secretly married--since their relationship seemed so inexplicable then and now. For thirteen of the years that Swift seemed committed to Stella as the acknowledged woman in his life, he maintained a clandestine--but apparentlyalso nonsexual--relationship with another woman, Esther Van Homrigh, or "Vanessa." Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women looks again at these much-examined relationships and at others that reveal Swift as a man who enjoyed the company of a number of women as pupils and as ministrants to his variousneeds. Swift, a man with a complex private life, was also a writer whose satiric portraits of women could be unsparing. While Swift often criticized women for frivolous pastimes and idle chatter, his most notorious texts on women image their bodies as loathsome: as he once wrote in a serious politicaltract, a woman is a "nauseous, unwholesome carcass." Such representations cross a line by showing a repugnance for women as a sex, the biological other. They have led, not surprisingly, to repeated charges of misogyny, an issue that Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women addresses at some length.This first book-length treatment of Swift and women comprehensively examines Swift's attitude toward women in all their manifestations in his work and life: as intimates, acquaintances, proteges, wives, mothers, nurses, disobedient daughters, young women who marry older men, and--finally--as poetsand critics.


Jonathan Swift’s relations with women, and certain representations of women in his writings, have elicited strong reactions and tempted speculation from his own time to ours. Swift never married, and, although opinions differ, there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual relationship. Sexual pleasure is not alluded to in his writing, much less valorized, and implicit references to sex are negative: the commercial sex of prostitution, with its attendant diseases; the passion of wellborn women for socially inferior men or elderly men for young women; the lust of the female Yahoo for Gulliver.

As a satirist, Swift is often didactic, but when he turns his attention to a couple’s wedding night and sermonizes about proper marital behavior, sex is eclipsed by excretion. the closest thing to an embrace of ordinary eroticism in Swift comes from the highly problematic speaker of The Lady’s Dressing Room:

Should I the queen of love refuse,
Because she rose from stinking ooze? (cp 452)

Swiftian references to gods and goddesses are usually ironic, but even if “queen of love” is accepted as a positive allusion to Aphrodite, the image is immediately undercut by “stinking ooze,” an expression that forcibly recalls the smelly shit that has been the endless subject of the second half of the poem. While the amorous voyeur who has toured the lady’s dressing room is overcome both literally and metaphorically by her excrement, lamenting “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (cp 451), the speaker does not disavow the association of women with various . . .

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